Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 8:20 pm on 21st May 1990.

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Photo of Dr Alan Williams Dr Alan Williams , Carmarthen 8:20 pm, 21st May 1990

I shall return to the point that no scientist in Britain today, no matter how distinguished—including the chief medical officer—can say with certainty that all British beef is safe to eat.

The Southwood committee estimated that the epidemic would peak at 350 to 400 incidents per month—and that figure was quoted earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark). Already, the death rate is 350 to 450 cows per week, which is four times Southwood's projected figure—and the rate is doubling every six months. Despite the Minister's extraordinary complacency, the figure is multiplying exponentially. If the plateau had been reached, there could possibly be room for complacency, but in reality BSE is increasing way out of control.

Given the best scientific advice available at the time, Southwood predicted that cattle were likely to be the dead end host, but evidently that is not the case. BSE in cattle can be passed to mice, mink, deer, and possibly cats. It is very possible that scrapie in sheep evolves, mutates and changes when transmitted to cattle—and that the resultant strain, which manifests itself as BSE, could be many times more virulent and pathogenic than the scrapie from which it originated. In that respect, Southwood erred far too much on the side of optimism, and failed to make the more pessimistic assumptions that it should have made.

There are huge areas of ignorance in respect of BSE. It would benefit the debate if the Minister did not always display ebullient confidence and knock every argument to the floor—even if that is only in his own mind, because the consumer is far more discriminating and can see through the right hon. Gentleman's bullish arrogance. In any scientific inquiry, there needs to be more humility in the search for the truth. The fact remains that the scientists concerned, eminent though they may be, do not yet understand the key features of the disease. They do not know how widespread it is or how to diagnose it. With both scrapie and BSE, one can only reach a diagnosis by killing the suspect animal and examining its brain. It is incredible that such a viral particle or infective agent should be so hard to detect by normal diagnostic techniques.

We do not understand either how the disease is transmitted, or how scrapie became BSE. We do not know how other animals become infected by BSE. Most important of all, we cannot be certain that BSE does not affect human beings—no matter what may be said by Sir Donald Acheson, the Minister, or anyone else. It will take at least one decade before we can be sure whether BSE has any effect on human beings. To be as complacent as the Minister has shown himself to be, not only over the past few days but the past few years, is just as dangerous as scaremongering. There should be more balance in the debate, and greater consideration of both sides of the argument.

BSE is to be the subject of a "Horizon" programme on BBC2 tonight. The blurb for that programme in today's issue of The Independent says that scientists reveal that neither the facts nor the risks are fully understood. That is the state of our knowledge. The Minister may not acknowledge all the uncertainties, but the president of the National Farmers Union does. Sir Simon Gourlay is also quoted in The Independent today as saying: People recognise when there are voids in information. At the moment there is little confidence in official statements and that is why there is mayhem … there is a fear of the unknown. Sir Simon Gourlay has the modesty to accept the crisis of confidence that exists currently because of a fear of the unknown—but the Minister shows no such doubts. The debate would benefit also if the Minister and his colleagues, as well as MAFF, exhibited a little more humility and showed themselves willing to entertain some of the doubts shared both by the general public and leading scientists.

The effects of BSE are potentially so catastrophic that we should be adopting precautionary principles at every stage. Humans can recover from salmonella poisoning, but BSE is potentially an irreversible killer. It must be remembered that 100 years ago livestock was killed and consumed locally, but in today's food processing industry just one infected cow could contaminate 100 or 1,000 products and people.

The issue has gained extra momentum over the past two weeks because it has been found that cats have possibly died from contracting BSE. Those deaths might strike the House as trivial, and right hon. and hon. Members may question why cat deaths in Bristol, Belfast and Birmingham made the front pages of tabloid newspapers last week. However, if one considers the matter biologically, as carnivores, cats have digestive systems that are far more similar to those of human beings than cows. If the BSE particle or virus can survive the robust digestive system of a cat, containing as it does acids and enzymes to break down complex proteins, and damage its brain, at a molecular level it is most disturbing and significant that BSE can kill carnivores.

The more that BSE jumps species, in the way that scrapie jumps species, the more concerned every one of us should be. The two or three cat deaths that we have heard about could be just the beginning of an epidemic. Generally, when cats die no post-mortem is held.